There were many profound moments throughout my young adult life that led me to the rabbinate. One of the most powerful of these came during a Shabbat evening when I was an impressionable freshman at Brandeis University. We had just finished dinner and were sitting down to listen to a Shabbat lecture from the Reform Rabbinic Advisor, Rabbi Jonathan Klein. The young rabbi took out two pieces of white plastic that appeared to be something like a zip-tie and asked us if anyone knew what these were. After a few failed guesses that they were some sort of strange religious device that we had not yet encountered in our lives, Rabbi Klein explained that they were riot handcuffs; a quick easy way for police to arrest large groups of protesters at once. Rabbi Klein then went on to tell us about how he had recently been arrested while protesting in New York. I thought to myself, “Rabbis can get arrested?! This is awesome. I’m gonna be a rabbi!”
But seriously, I learned that evening about civil disobedience and our Jewish obligation to stand up for what we believe. Civil disobedience was defined by Gandhi as follows:
He who resorts to civil disobedience obeys the laws of the state to which he belongs, not out of fear of sanctions, but because he considers them to be good for the welfare of society. But there come occasions, generally rare, when he considers certain laws to be so unjust as to render obedience to them a dishonor. He then openly and civilly breaks them and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach.
It isn’t just Gandhi or rabbis who can participate in acts of civil disobedience – it can and should be anyone and everyone. As Margaret Meade famously once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This week the nation witnessed a beautiful act of civil disobedience by a virtual unknown, when Montgomery County Register of Wills, D. Bruce Hanes, announced Tuesday that he believed the law banning same sex marriage unconstitutional and would not deny the licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Although, the legality of those issued licenses by Hanes may be in question, there is no question that the act of civil disobedience taken by Bruce Hanes was heroic. When interviewed this week, Hanes said, “I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law.”
Traditionally Judaism believes in the concept of Dinah D’Malchut Dinah, the law of the kingdom (country) is the law. Our sages, perhaps out of fear and in an effort not to cause any trouble, rule on numerous occasions that civil law must be followed to the best of our ability as long as it does not come into direct violation with Jewish law. However, we have seen throughout Jewish history a number of unlikely heroes who stood up for what they believed in regardless of the consequences.
When God, the ultimate Ruler, told Abraham the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be wiped out, Abraham did not stand idly by, but instead argued with God. He asked, “Will you wipe away the innocent with the guilty? What if there are 50 good people in the city; will you not spare the city on account of those 50 good people?” Abraham continues in this vein, bargaining God down to only 5 innocent people, which unfortunately do not exist. Although the outcome in this particular instance was not what Abraham wanted, his act of disobedience against God truly exemplifies what it means to be Yisrael – one who struggles with the divine.
When Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish first born males should be killed, the famous midwives, Shifrah and Puah risked their very lives to save our people, refusing to just follow orders.
When Mordechai was told that he must bow down to Haman (booooo!), he instead chose civil disobedience and when Esther knew that going before King Achashveros uninvited could mean certain death, she pleaded her case anyway before the king to protect her people.
The prophets from our tradition are also models of civil disobedience. In this week’s Haftarah portion, Isaiah speaks about the trials and tribulations of being a prophet:
The Eternal God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Eternal God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
According to Isaiah, being a prophet aint easy! Civil disobedience is not easy. As Isaiah tells us, haters are going hate. But God has given each of us the “tongue of a teacher;” we all have the ability and the obligation to help spread God’s message in this world. Since Hanes’ actions on Tuesday, he has been vilified by many in the media and the government. Along with State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who declared she would not defend the state against lawsuits over the legality of a ban on gay marriage, he has been asked to resign. But as Isaiah says, as long as we have faith, God will have our backs. And no one can content with us when we stand together.
On Thursday, Kathleen Kane quoted Robert F. Kennedy, who in a famous 1966 speech in South Africa said that when a person stands up for an ideal, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Together, we can be those ripples. Together we can stand behind Kathleen Kane, Bruce Hanes and the countless others who are fighting for Marriage Equality. Together, we can make a difference. Together, we can help to make Pennsylvania a truly inclusive commonwealth which allows equal marriage for all. If you are interested in getting involved with Rodeph Shalom and Beth Ahava’s efforts towards Marriage Equality, we encourage you be in touch with the chair of our taskforce, Steve Mirman and to keep a look out in the bulletin, in weekly emails and on the web for other ways to be active in our advocacy efforts.
Isaiah concludes this week’s Haftarah with a promise of an impending joy in Zion: “Gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.” (Isaiah 51:3)
Like Isaiah, we pray and hope that all couples in Pennsylvania will be able to marry and fill their lives with the sound of music, thanksgiving, joy and gladness.
Or as State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Phila.), who last fall became the first openly gay candidate to win a seat in the legislature, wrote, “Marriage equality will happen in Pennsylvania, the only question remaining is ‘when?'”